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Glass's musical shifts shimmer at Quebec light festival

The Philip Glass Ensemble

At Festival Montréal en lumière in Montreal on Thursday, Friday, Saturday

Montreal is in the midst of yet another festival and this time it's all about light. If you travel the city by night you stumble upon bizarre plays of light beams and reflecting surfaces in public squares and neighbourhood parks, some elaborate and showy, some awesome in their simplicity.

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Not all of the festival is outdoors: The Philip Glass Ensemble was invited to perform for three nights, each night with a different film by Godfrey Reggio: 1983's Koyannisqatsi and 1988's Powaqqatsi were screened on Thursday and Friday. On Saturday the film was Anima Mundi,a 1991 commission from the Bvlgari watch people on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund's Biodiversity Campaign. The live performance of the soundtrack was billed a world premiere.

I would like to think that the light festival's showcasing the Glass ensemble may have been inspired by the shimmering brightness of Glass's music -- which is not to take away from Reggio's polished image-making -- but the films were only obliquely about light.

Glass has his detractors, those for whom his subtle shifts are just mind-numbing repetitions. He is also, however, one of a handful of "serious composers" who can fill a major hall three nights running. And with good reason: If one is a fan, the music is compelling, especially live. Almost without exception, the core members of the Glass Ensemble are also composers, an impressive array of musical intelligence. Saxophonist Richard Peck and keyboardist and conductor Michael Reisman, have been playing with Glass for almost 30 years; soprano and keyboardist Lisa Bielawa, flutist and clarinetist Andrew Sterman and keyboardist Eleanor Sandresky, joined in the early 1990s.

Sometimes mistakenly called "minimalist," Glass's music is intricately layered and operates much like shifting plates. It calls for very precise playing, and for the singer and winds, remarkable breathing. While the Ensemble played well on Thursday, Saturday's performance was stunning. The musicians appear relaxed and loose as they get their instruments to reveal an intense calculus, while Glass seems almost to float at his keyboard.

The night began with the 1986 Dance Piece No. 9. As with the first bit of Koyaanisqatsi on Thursday, elements in the performance were occasionally lost in a sometimes muddy output from the console -- a question of adjusting to the less than perfect acoustics of the Theatre Maisonneuve. By the time we were into an excerpt from 1983's The Photographer,Lisa Bielawa's singing over the syncopated attacks of the keyboards was enthralling. Glass's is the right musical voice for a digitizing culture: Lots of elements are at play, some set against a seemingly relentless pulse. Occasionally and surprisingly a voice will soar and the music will become transcendent and move in a new direction.

Next came excerpts from Glass's most recent composition, the 1997 score to Kundun. His comfort at adapting other musical syntaxes is clear in the scoring for the movie, a naturalness in the melding of Tibetan percussion and vocal techniques with Glass's keenly modern sensibility.

The Funeral from Akhnaten followed, a piece from 1984. The live performance of this piece was electric, almost blinding, driven by the brilliant percussion of Frank Cassera and Valerie Naranjo.

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After intermission came the "world premiere" of the concert version of the Anima Mundi score. Borrowing heavily from traditional music, the score is closer to Kundun then to the scores for the other two films.

And it is a very pretty score, sometimes reminiscent of Messiaen in its evocation of birds. The instrumentation, in keeping with the nature mandate, was more acoustic than one is used to with Glass. The playing was exquisite, and the percussive changes were a joy. The film had lovely moments too, with signature elements of Reggio's, like undulating and reflecting surfaces of the ocean being transformed into streams of clouds. And the animals of Anima Mundi were mostly beautiful. But perhaps because it is a "campaign commission" and inescapably promotional, it seemed to lack the single-minded voice of the Qatsi collaborations.

In the live performance of Koyaanisqatsi,music and image were perfectly joined. With Anima Mundi the music was ultimately more rewarding than the projected image. Just as I was getting bored with flocks and schools and herds of endangered species flickering across a screen -- and thinking it odd to be consuming nature this way -- the music would pull me back into itself and make the experience of the film interesting again. This is perhaps the Glass key, the ability, no matter the medium, to create music that absorbs the listener. Few composers span such diverse worlds with such ease.

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